Professor Steven Watts featured in PBS documentary on Walt Disney

Professor Steven Watts shares love with Disney beyond MU.
MU professor Dr. Steven Watts poses for a portrait. Watts helped produced a PBS film on Walt Disney called “American Experience: Walt Disney.” Courtesy of Alison Reynolds

History professor Steven Watts’s interest in Walt Disney began with a trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

“To tell you the truth, it was sort of an accident,” Watts said.

This accidental interest led to the publication of Watts’s book, “The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life” in 1997, and his subsequent role in the two-night PBS documentary that aired Sept. 14 and 15, “American Experience: Walt Disney.”

It began when Watts traveled to Florida with his wife and visited Disney World. He could not help but wonder about the connection between the throngs of people and Walt Disney himself.

“It was one of those things that just stuck in my mind, and when I got back home, it wouldn’t go away,” Watts said. “I just kept thinking about Disney.”

Watts discovered that an in-depth book on the historical analysis of Disney did not exist, so he submitted a book proposal to the Houghton Mifflin publishing company. Six months later, he received a contract.

Watts traveled to Burbank, California, three to four times a year over the next five years to gather information for his book in the Disney archives.

Sarah Colt, producer of “American Experience: Walt Disney,” approached Watts about the documentary based on their previous work experiences together.

In 2013, Colt produced “American Experience: Henry Ford” after reading Watts’s book “The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century.” Colt relied on Watts’s biography of Henry Ford for her research in the film.

Colt said Watts’s book on Henry Ford was the obvious choice during her research for the documentary, and she felt the same about Watts’s book on Disney.

“I was interested in all the reasons Steve wanted to write the book,” Colt said. “Why the impact? What is it about this person? The answers to these questions were in Steve’s book.”

Watts said he acted as a talking head and adviser in the Disney documentary. He and Colt brainstormed about the content of the film.

Colt then interviewed Watts for a total of about seven hours on the life of Disney.

“Working with Steve on two projects in a row has been such a pleasure,” Colt said. “I imagine he’s a fantastic professor.”

Watts interest in Disney has inspired many students in his “Walt Disney and American Culture” class. He said this is his fourth time teaching the course.

“I had quite a lot of material from the Disney archives from when I was doing the book,” Watts said. “I thought it would be kind of fun.”

The class explores Disney and mass culture as well as its influence on topics such as the Great Depression, art in the 1930s and 1940s and World War II.

“Disney in many ways, I think, was kind of a spokesman for the hopes and values and fears of ordinary Americans in the 20th century,” Watts said. “He sort of presented a picture of themselves and a picture of the country that they really wanted to believe.”

Lindsey Foat, the community engagement producer at Kansas City Public Television, is a former student of Watts’s who took the Disney class.

“It’s definitely its own crash course in 20th century American history,” Foat said.

KCPT invited Watts to show the first 20 minutes of the documentary at the Kansas City public library Sept. 2. About 450 people attended the film screening and Watts’s discussion afterward.

“At the event itself, I felt as though I was back in class,” Foat said. “It was no surprise that Steven Watts was one of the historians they chose to work with.”

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